The Art of Synopsis Writing

Editing & Marketing

A few weeks ago an author approached The Editing Company for some help with rewriting the synopsis of her manuscript. I was lucky enough to be put to the task.

Writing a synopsis is quite the creative challenge. It requires you to sculpt the manuscript down to its best and most vital parts and make them flow as tightly as possible. As I worked through our client’s synopsis, I couldn’t help but think: “Hey, this is really fun. I want to do this with my own work!” And that’s where things got complicated.
The synopsis may not be something you think about when you start writing a novel, but it’s an important tool. A great synopsis could well be what convinces a publisher to give your manuscript a closer look.
But, much like self-editing, it turns out that self-synopsizing is a lot trickier than you’d think. I quickly understood why our client had come to us for help once I began staring down the 174,000-word monster of a novel that I just completed. And then I had a bit of a panic attack. (“Surely this can’t be possible! I wrote each and every one of these words for a reason, and how am I supposed to pick between them? Isn’t that a bit like picking between your children?!”)
Synopsizing Tips & Recommendations
Once the panicking was done, I turned to the all-knowing Google and found a lot of synopsizing tips from experienced writers. My favourite of those tips, from writer Marg Gilks "How to Write a Synopsis" at, was that you should try approaching your synopsis as if you’ve just seen a great movie and are excitedly recounting it to a friend. Who doesn’t like doing that? With that in mind, I sat down and began to hammer out a hopefully thrilling retelling of my novel’s high points.
It was a bit painful at first, but it soon became just as rewarding as writing our client’s synopsis had been. There’s a reason I wrote this story, after all; not only because I love writing, but also because I love the story’s characters. The chance to talk up those characters and their experiences was actually kind of gratifying.
In the end, my attempt at writing a synopsis was only semi-successful. I started out keeping things nice and condensed, but then I got a little carried away.
Recommendations for synopsis length range anywhere from 1–2 pages to 5–10 pages, with 10 often called the absolute maximum. I think my final product came closer to 16—and a rather babbling 16, at that!
Of course, such is the nature of first drafts. Many of the authors I consulted suggest starting with an expanded synopsis and working it down to the essentials. I haven’t yet had the chance to edit down the first draft of my synopsis. But even if I never send this particular, rambling version to any publishers, the process so far has already been surprisingly helpful.
The Key Question
When you’re writing a novel, this question is unavoidable: What’s your story about? For some reason this has always stopped me dead. How am I supposed to explain something so deeply personal, that I’ve spent so many hours and words on, in a neat sentence or two? It sounds impossible. Every time I have been asked that question, I’ve just given the person a weak smile and said, “I’m not really sure of that, myself.”
Not the most effective line for selling a book.
In the process of boiling things down for my synopsis, I was forced to pick the story’s main events, thread them together, and understand their significance. And, in doing so, themes and intentions that I hadn’t even consciously realized were suddenly made obvious to me.
So, thanks for that, synopsis. Now I finally understand what my own book is about!